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Thursday, 20 December 2012

OLR Week 15: A Patriot in a Pear Tree

Another week down in the NFL, another chance to look into the numbers behind the performances of the best and worst Offensive Lines in the league, and at this festive time of year it's the New England Patriots OL who earn extra presents from Santa and a bonus mince pie by topping the OLR rankings for a second week in a row. This, despite their SNF loss to the 49ers, keeps them fighting towards that top spot in the OLR season rankings, but are they closing the gap on the #1 elect unit, the New York Giants?

In a game where there were nearly as many fumbles as there were TDs, the Patriots found themselves deep in a hole. At 31-3 down, the offense was ineffective early (through no fault of the OL), and looked like they were going to be soundly beaten. Then, something started to click. Against a defense that has given up a total of 3 rushing TDs all season before Sunday, the Patriots pounded in 3 in quick succession, as well as adding one through the air, and these 28 unanswered points looked to have the Patriots on the verge of one of the great comebacks in NFL history.
It wasn't to be, as the Michael Crabtree was able to turn a short outside route into a 38yd TD and give the 9ers a lead that the Patriots couldn't fight back from again. Despite the defeat, scoring 3 rushing TDs against the 49ers is impressive for the Patriots - it's taken 14 games for them to concede that many, let alone doing it inside 14 minutes. None of the scores were breakaway runs, they're chalked up as 6yd, 1yd, 1yd, and that's the kind of grinding performance where the OL is just as responsible, if not more so, for the TD than the ball-carrier is. Speaking of grinding it out in the run game, the Patriots managed to put down 8 rushing first downs compared with only 1 run for negative yards, an impressive performance against a D that ranks 1st in the league for rushing 1st downs allowed.

Where the Patriots the Patriots comeback finally stalled was in the passing game. Of course, Brady put up numbers in the match, throwing a TD for the 46th game in a row, recording his 53rd 300-yard game of his career (ranking him 5th All-Time), and helping the Patriots to pass 500 points for the season, making them the first team in NFL history to achieve this feat 4 times; but 3 sacks allowed, 2 at a critical time, was a killer. At 38-31 to the 49ers, the Patriots had the ball at midfield, having scored TDs on the last 4 drives, and just seeing the 9ers retake the lead with that Crabtree TD. On back-to-back plays, 2-10 and 3-15, the Patriots OL allowed Brady to get pressure in his face, and eventually be taken down for a sack, first by Ray McDonald, and second by Ricky Jean-Francois. The sacks killed the drive, and the Patriots, as their final 2 possessions after this series ended with a 3-and-out and a Stephen Gostkowski FG. Whilst the OLR stat doesn't have a "context" factor to show just how important these sacks were to the game, it's certainly a caveat to crowning the Patriots OLR #1 this week.

On a brighter note for the Patriots OL, for the second week in a row they have kept the NFL's sack leader sackless in a game. Last week it was JJ Watt who didn't manage to bring down Brady, and this week it was Aldon Smith. In fact, Smith failed to register a solo tackle in the game, and although he did pressure Brady on a couple of occasions, his only real contribution came on a fluke interception he made when Aaron Hernandez bobbled a pass in the flats. Keeping Watt and Smith quiet is something that no other OL has managed to do this season, but the Patriots managed in back to back weeks. They get a week off from pass rushers this week, as they visit the NFL's 32nd ranked team in sacks - the Jacksonville Jaguars (15, a full 6 sacks less than the 31st placed team!)

Did anyone else do a double-take when they saw the Cardinals score from week 15? Firstly, they won, which was pretty astounding, and secondly, they scored 38 points! Since pretty much week 1 the Cardinals have been the worst OL unit in the NFL. Injuries depleted them at OT straight away, and D'Anthony Batiste and rookie Bobbie Massie have been frankly horrible on the outside, propelling the Cards to a league high 52 sacks. In the last couple of weeks, however, things have started to turn around. The placing of rookie Nate Potter at LT, alongside his friend and fellow Boise St alum (and friend of TPL) Daryn Colledge at LG, has been a bit of a revolution, with the Cards OL averaging around 2 sacks per game with Potter in, compared to the 6.5 they were allowing in the 5 games previous. They're also running the ball better. With a respectable 3.4 YPC this week, plus 3 rushing TDs, and 6 rushing first downs, the Cardinals were able to grind down the Detroit Lions (who'd allowed only 9 rushing TDs in 2012 before meeting the Cards) on their way to an impressive 3rd place in OLR this week, with a score high enough to finally lift them out of 32nd in the NFL so far. They've still got some way to make it up another step, but just maybe their week 15 performance will save them the shame of being #32 when the season is done.

Currently, that "honour" lies with the San Diego Chargers. Another dire performance from them in week 15, with only 70 yards on the ground and no first downs at all when rushing outside the tackles, plus 6 sacks of Philip Rivers. It's pretty obvious the Chargers are still struggling to find replacements for Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman.

I was about to finish writing this OLR piece here, until I took another look at the bottom of the weekly rankings. The Kansas City Chiefs managed to put up a truly horrific score of -1.004, which deserves a little mention for being quite so shocking this late in the season. Against a mediocre Oakland Raiders D, the Chiefs didn't score a point, didn't rush for a first down, and didn't protect Brady Quinn. Seriously, 10 carries for 10 yards (a YPC of 1, in case you need that one working out for you) is pretty horrible. 4 sacks plus another 4 QB takedowns is pretty horrible. And zero points against the Raiders is pretty horrible. I have basically nothing nice to say about the Chiefs offense. At all. Sorry to ruin your Christmas, Kansas.

- Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
- The Pulling Linemen

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